Affinities and Animosities:
Universalists and Unitarians in the Formative Period
A Lecture, sponsored by the
Unitarian Universalist Historical Society,
at the Meadville/Lombard Theological School
Professor Emeritus of History
George Mason University
It is a penchant of historians to want to begin a story at the beginning. Were I to attempt such a feat in this lecture, however, I would have to probe religious developments from antiquity to the nineteenth century, in order to provide background for my topic. Such an approach, I am afraid, would result in my barely getting to the nub of my topic before your patience would be exhausted..
So, instead, I’m going to go back in time a mere two hundred or so years and take up the story in media res, that is, in the middle of the period in which the Universalist and Unitarian denominations were being formed. However, since we are living in an age of film and television, from time to time I shall make use of flashbacks and prevision.
To put a human face on my story, first I’ll ask you, in your mind’s eye, to join me in standing at the edge of the Boston Common on Beacon Hill in front the bas-relief saluting Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his Black regiment in the Civil War and facing Charles Bulfinch’s magnificent architectural achievement, the Massachusetts State House. Glancing to the left, of course, we see the building of the Unitarian Universalist Association at 25 Beacon Street. Beyond it, we see the corner of Joy Street. Let us stroll up Joy Street, and, on the left, turn the corner on to Mount Vernon Street. Not very far down the hill, on the right, we see a brass plaque in front of a handsome brick building at number 83, indicating that this was the home of the Reverend Dr. William Ellery Channing.
Then, let us stroll back up the grade, and turn left on to Joy Street (which in Channing’s day, by the way, was named Belknap Street), and climb up and over the brow of the hill. On the backside of Beacon Hill, on the left, we shall cross Pinckney and then arrive at Myrtle Street. If we turn the corner, a little way down the street, on the left, we’ll come to number 24. This is the spot on which stood the final residence of the Reverend Hosea Ballou. (On Myrtle, as on many other streets in Boston, of course, the original detached houses have given way to townhouses, or row houses.)
I estimate that, as the crow flies, there is an eighth of a mile separating the homes of the two most estimable leaders of the liberal religious denominations in the first half of the nineteenth century. (Not being a crow, I have been unable to validate my estimate!)
Channing, in his later years, lived on one of the most exclusive streets in Boston, in a development planned by Charles Bulfinch. (Incidentally, much of the soil that was removed in the process went to help create the Embankment at the Charles River.)
Myrtle Street, on the backside of Beacon Hill, while by no means an impoverished area, was much less fashionable. The backside of the Hill, for example, was the location of the largest of Boston’s Black communities.
As far as I have been able to determine, Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing never met in person-no matter the close proximity of their houses. However, they were keenly aware of each other.
Channing was the minister of the Federal Street Church, having been ordained there in 1803. With the filling in of the Back Bay, that congregation moved from what was increasingly a business section to the new, stylish part of the city, to be closer to the homes of its more affluent members, becoming the Arlington Street Church (1861), about twenty years after Channing’s death..
Channing was born in 1780 into a prominent merchant and legal family in Newport, Rhode Island, one of nine children. In illustration of its prominence, his attorney grandfather William Ellery was one of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and his father served as state attorney general. Channing received his early education at Dame and day schools, and then studied at Harvard College. After a period of about two years as a school master in Richmond, Virginia-during which time he read theology in the evenings-he returned to New England, and continued his study of divinity at Harvard.
Channing was to develop into one of the most cultured of men and polished of authors, his writings not limited to theology, but encompassing belle lettres, history, politics and social problems, including the dreaded institution of slavery, which he had observed first hand in the South.
Ballou, who was born in 1771, was the son of a farmer, who had migrated from Rhode Island, to the frontier of southwestern New Hampshire, where he settled in what became the town of Richmond. Maturin Ballou farmed and preached. In other words, he was what was called a Baptist farmer preacher. He earned the bread of what was to become a large family by toil on the land. The Baptists of the day did not expect their preachers to have more than an elementary education, and certainly not a theological education. They believed that the Holy Spirit could not be channeled to neophyte preachers by professors in theological schools.
Hosea Ballou, the last of eleven children, learned his letters at his father’s knee, and had only a few months of formal education in a local school established by the Quakers, and at an academy.
He was a teenager when he was exposed to the notion of universal salvation and came to believe its truth. When he followed in his father’s footsteps as a preacher, it was as a circuit rider (on horseback, and sometimes by buggy) in western Massachusetts and Vermont. His settled ministries were of a few years each in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Salem, Massachusetts. He agreed to move to Boston only after John Murray had departed this life. He was installed as minister of the new Second Universalist Society on School Street on Christmas day in 1817.
Channing, as I have indicated, was a consummate stylist, his writings reflecting the excellent literary education he had received, often poetic in their expression. Ballou, on the other hand, coming from the backwoods, with a very limited education, wrote in a simple, homely prose, with no great flights of fancy, easily understood by his rural audience. When Skinner House Books asked me to write an introduction to A Treatise on Atonement, for a new edition in 1986, we naturally published Ballou’s final reworking of the book for the edition of 1832, as an account of his mature thinking on the various issues he discusses, especially on the nature of Jesus and the question of punishment in the afterlife. I much prefer the first edition of 1805, however, for the pungency of expression. Under the influence of urban life and polite society, Ballou’s style became more mild, indeed often stilted.
Channing and Ballou were also divided by politics, Channing following the Federalists after the creation of the new government, and Ballou becoming a Jeffersonian Democrat. (In that day, of course, Jefferson’s party was labeled “Republican.”) By the way, both got into trouble for their political views. Ballou, taking President Madison’s side in the Embargo during the War of 1812, fell into disfavor with the shipowners in his congregation in Portsmouth. Later, Channing with his denunciations of slavery, displeased the “Cotton Whigs” in his congregation, who favored maintaining good relations with the slaveholding states for the sake of trade.
Soon after his settlement in Boston, Ballou established the first newspaper of the denomination, the Universalist Magazine, in 1819. It was in this publication that he first noted the existence of Channing. Channing traveled to Baltimore in 1819 to deliver the sermon at the ordination of Jared Sparks at a newly-formed Unitarian church. Up to this point, the liberals within the Congregational churches had resisted the designation “Unitarian,” preferring to be labeled “Liberal Christians,” or, “Catholic Christians.” (This was obviously in a day before Roman Catholicism had become well established in the United States!) The epithet “Unitarian” had first been hurled at them by their orthodox brethren in the Congregational churches, who had picked it up from whom they considered infidels in Britain. The Reverend Jedidiah Morse, of Charlestown, was particularly biting in the pages of his magazine, The Panoplist, the very name of which conveyed bellicosity. Morse, in addition, finding the growing liberalism of Harvard offensive, led in the establishment of a counter-institution at Andover.
In Baltimore, in his sermon Unitarian Christianity, Channing embraced the name “Unitarian” and used the occasion to spell out the distinctive features of the new faith.
Ballou reprinted much of the sermon in the Universalist Magazine. He claimed to be delighted by it, and with good reason. After all, under the influence of the Enlightenment and Deism, Ballou had begun the transformation of the Universalist movement from trinitarianism to unitarianism in 1795. By the time of the publication of his Treatise on Atonement in 1805, the movement had pretty much been converted. Except for a few holdouts, most notable among them John Murray, the Universalists were unitarians before the Unitarians became recognized as a movement within the Congregational churches.
Ballou was impressed by Channing’s words, first and foremost because he spent much of the sermon stressing the use of reason in religious matters. Like Ballou in the Treatise, Channing insisted that it was impossible to deal with the intricacies of biblical interpretation unless one applied to it the instrument that the deity had made innate in human beings, the ability to distinguish between what is reasonable and what is fatuous. One could not fall back on the argument often used by the orthodox that some things had to be accepted on faith, no matter how ridiculous they appeared. As Ballou had written in the Treatise, “we ought . . . to believe, that all the truth which is necessary for our belief, is not only reasonable, but reducible to our understandings.” [1805 edition, p. iv]
Ballou also agreed with Channing in his rejection of the orthodox position that both the human and the divine were combined in Christ. This position was incomprehensible to anyone who applied reason in biblical interpretation.
Universalists and Unitarians at this point in their development were Arians, adhering to the position of Arius in the third/fourth century-he was the one who lost out to Athanasius and the Trinitarians at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Arius taught that the Son was the first of God’s creations, and was, therefore, a subordinate being, not co-equal with the Father, as, of course, the Trinitarians insisted.
Since Christ, or the Son, was more than human, no matter how the orthodox and the liberals might disagree on the question of if, and how, the divine and human were co-mingled in him, it is important to note that both denominations believed he performed miracles, including that greatest of all, rising from the dead. They were convinced that it was miracles that validated his teachings. In effect, they were saying that this is how God provided Christ with his bona fides-in today’s slang! Later, when Transcendentalism tended to undermine their faith in miracles, Professor Andrews Norton at Harvard, among others, was vociferous in maintaining that if belief in miracles were to disappear, so would the teachings of Christ.
Even after Ballou had abandoned Arianism, convinced by Joseph Priestley’s arguments against it, he would insist that the human Jesus had been sent by the Father to attest to God’s love for humanity. The ability to perform miracles, of course, was useful in convincing skeptics that he had a divine mission. [Priestley’s influence on Ballou’s position is seen in the fact that he published long excerpts from A General View of the Arguments for the Unity of God. From Reason, from the Scriptures, and from History in several installments in the Universalist Magazine in 1819. See 1:73-74, 77-78, 81-82, 85.]
Channing frankly admitted in Baltimore that Unitarians differed among themselves as to what role the death of Christ on the cross played in determining the fate of human beings. But, there was no question that they rejected the gruesome idea that the Son, in the figure of Christ, had died as a ransom to an angry Father.
Both Universalists and Unitarians rebelled against the Calvinists’ insistence that the Son, in His incarnation in Jesus Christ, had died to save humanity from an angry Father-a Father furious over the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the resultant taint in the human race of their Original Sin. However, the orthodox insisted that not all human beings benefitted from the Christ’s soteriological sacrifice. Only those who were predestined by the deity, the “Elect,” would spend a blissful eternity with Him and His angels, the rest of the human race-the greater number of the human race!-being damned, and consigned to eternal hell fire.
One of the more intriguing aspects of disputation among Calvinists (which almost makes the study of theology enjoyable-if one has a sense of humor!) was over whether God had decided these matters after, or before, the lapse of Adam and Eve and the resultant innate depravity in their descendants. The Sublapsarians believed God decided the matter after the Fall. The Supralapsarians did not like the sound of this, for it implied that the omniscient, omnipotent God had botched the job of creation. Therefore, they opted for the idea that even before the creation, God had decided who would be saved and who damned.
We should recognize, in all fairness, that some of the Calvinists were disturbed at the idea of the Son paying a ransom to an angry God. In other words, they had a greater ethical sense than that alleged of their deity. Some sought a way out of the dilemma by claiming that the Son died not as a ransom but in order to uphold God’s law, others that he died for the glory of God. Ballou, in the Treatise had dismissed these positions as ridiculous, for how could an eternal, infinite God require any more glory than He already possessed? He made light of this notion in the same homely manner in which he had dismissed Trinitarians as believing in the “amazing sum of infinity, multiplied by three”!
As much as Ballou praised the Baltimore Sermon, there was one position that Channing took that spelled the stark difference between Unitarians and Universalists. For Channing, although singing a paean to a loving God, spoke of the correction that that loving Father would impose on “incorrigible” sinners. This went against the grain of everything Universalists believed. There were no “incorrigible” sinners in Ballou’s lexicon. The eternal, unchangeable, God of Love would save all human beings.
Universalists differed among themselves as to how the deity would go about the process of salvation. Following James Relly, Murray believed that, because human beings were so closely related to the Son, indeed to the extent of consanguinity with him, they were redeemed by that fact. Salvation, on the other hand, was enjoyed by persons on earth once they came to believe in the Son as their personal savior. Some Universalists, however, followed Elhanan Winchester in the belief that there would be a period of punishment in the afterlife, during which sinners would undergo a period of reform. Winchester reckoned the period at 50,000 years. Ballou, and his followers, were in the process of rethinking the question of punishment. (More on this below.)
We should turn our attention first to the distinction between the churches of the Unitarians and those of the Universalists. With the unique exception of King’s Chapel, and the English Unitarians who migrated to Pennsylvania, the greater number of liberal, that is, Unitarian, Congregationalists were in the churches that stemmed from the Puritans in New England.
As far as King’s Chapel is concerned, it became Unitarian by happenstance. After the Revolution, when the Chapel sought an Anglican priest, it suffered from the fact that such ministers were Tories and had fled to Canada, the West Indies, or Britain. It turned to James Freeman, who had studied at Harvard, and was infected with Unitarianism. Thus, began the transformation of the Chapel from Anglican orthodoxy to Unitarianism.
In the case of the Philadelphia Unitarians, we find such figures as Dr. Joseph Priestley in the leadership. Priestley migrated to the United States in 1794, and when Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, he said that, for the first time in his life, he was living under a sympathetic government. The Universalists of Philadelphia, incidentally, offered Priestley the use of their meetinghouse for his services. In his first sermon he announced that he, too, believed that all human souls would be saved!
The far greater number of the Unitarians were to be found in the Congregational churches of New England. These tended to be the old families, the upper crust of society. It is notable that so many of the first parishes, the old, well-established churches of the New England towns, evolved into Unitarianism. In many cases, however, it was not a matter of evolution but of disruption, the orthodox and the liberals separating. Thanks to the Dedham Decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court (1820), in many of the cases of disruption, the liberals ended up with the meetinghouses, the church silver, and other property, the departing conservatives ending up with their beliefs and the need to build new places of worship.
The Universalists, by contrast, were dissenters, folks who departed from the orthodox churches and formed new groups. While, in rare cases, Congregational churches became Universalist, the greater number became Unitarian. So, the greater number of Universalists were comeouters. It is remarkable, for instance, how many came from among the Baptists. And, given their humble beginnings, it was years before they raised themselves on the socio-economic ladder to the level as the Unitarians.
Given the fact that they were a group of relative wealth and standing in society, the Unitarians did not suffer as did the Universalists. As radical as Unitarianism appeared to the orthodox, it was advocated by folks who were relatively conservative in political and social matters. Much worse were the intolerable beliefs of the Universalists. The orthodox said that if people did not believe in eternal punishment, they felt free to engage in thievery, rape, murder, and any number of other abominable practices. The Universalists responded forcefully in their preaching that if people really believed that the deity was a God of love, who wished human beings well, and would save all souls, they would have no desire to engage in such activities.
Possessing the old established churches, the Unitarians, like their fellow Congregationalists, were part of the Standing Order. Two generations before the period we are dealing with, the people of Gloucester who supported John Murray, and sought to depart from the town’s Congregational church to establish their own, had their property seized in lieu of the taxes they refused to pay. It took a court case to establish their right, and the right of other dissenting religious groups, to divert their tax money from the established churches to their own.
The Unitarians, having inherited the parishes and churches of the Standing Order, like the orthodox Congregationalists, benefitted from the religious tax imposed in most of the New England states. When, in late 1820 and early 1821, Massachusetts went through the exercise of revising its Constitution, the attempt to separate church and state was opposed successfully by the eloquent Daniel Webster, among others. Channing, and a number of other Unitarian ministers, sided with Webster. In an eloquent sermon in December 1820, titled Religion a Social Principle, Channing defended the union of church and state, arguing that religion is not merely a personal matter between God and human beings: “. . .Therefore, Society ought, through its great organ and representative, which is government, as well as by other methods, to pay homage to God, and express its obligation.” I am sure that it was more than the fact that his church benefitted from tax money that led him to take that position. [See William Ellery Channing, Religion a Social Principle: A Sermon delivered in the Church in Federal Street, Boston, Dec. 10, 1820(Boston, 1820), 8.]
As one would expect, Ballou chided him for his position. Within ten days, he rushed into print with “strictures” on the sermon. Among other arguments, he pointed out: “If one set of religious sentiments ought to be supported by law, because they are of a social and salutary nature in society, there surely is the same reason for preventing by law the propagation of principles which are subversive of them.” Ballou said that Channing was surely aware that it is not possible to make men religious by law.
Ballou thought that Daniel Webster made a better case for the establishment as a matter of state policy. But, then again, the state constitution would have to define the doctrine of Christianity. He suggested, sarcastically, that it “be done in thirty-nine articles, or more or less as the constituted authority should see fit to determine.” [See Hosea Ballou, Strictures on a Sermon entitled “Religion a social Principle” (Boston, 1820), 11, 13.]
When Channing compiled his Works, published in 1841, at the end of his “Introductory Remarks,” he pointed out that some of his writings contain “opinions which time has disproved,” but he included them “as a record of past impressions.” The sermon, Religion a Social Principle, however, was too much of an embarrassment to include. The problem was easily solved, however. Fortunately, the sermon fell into two parts, the first advocating the union of church and state, the second devoted to exalted prose on the benefit of religion to society. He, thus, eliminated the first part, and included the second part in his collection, it becoming “Importance of Religion to Society.” [See The Works of William Ellery Channing, D.D. New and Complete Edition, Rearranged, to which is added The Perfect Life. Edition in one volume (Boston, 1886), 11.]
By the way, it was not until the constitutional revision of 1833 that the dissenters-Universalists, Baptists, Methodists, and others-finally succeeded to overturning the hated provision. Thus, the old Bay State forty-two years after the adoption of the federal Bill of Rights, separated church and state.
It was the dominance of the New England churches among the Unitarians, and, particularly the centrality of Boston, once the American Unitarian Association was established in 1825, that led some to quip that Unitarians believed in “The Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston.”
It is another saying, attributed to Thomas Starr King, who was the product of a family that combined Unitarian and Universalist elements, that has been called upon many times to spell out succinctly the distinction between early Unitarians and Universalists. He said that Unitarians believed that human beings were too good to be condemned by God, while the Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn human beings.
And, so we come to the subject of salvation.
As stated above, Ballou was quite critical of Channing for referring to “incorrigible” sinners in the Baltimore Sermon. There were no such beings, in Ballou’s mind, and in the minds of universalists generally, both with a small “u” as well as a capital “U.” For instance, when, in 1784, Charles Chauncy of the First Church in Boston, published his book Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, or, The Salvation of All Men, one of his objects was to counteract the type of Universalism that had been brought to the New World by John Murray in 1770, namely the theological approach of James Relly. Having opposed Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and others, in the period of the Great Awakening two generations before for what he considered excessive emotionalism, Chauncy objected to the same in Murray’s preaching style. Murray had come under the influence of Whitefield’s emotional brand of Methodism in Britain, before he was converted to Universalism by the preaching of Relly, and was greatly influenced by his manner in the pulpit.
What is particularly striking in Chauncy’s formulation is that he attempted to preserve a measure of free will for humanity, at the same time that he insisted that all souls would be saved. He, and other liberal Congregationalists, and later Unitarians, as well as many Universalists, are classed as Arminians, accepting the formulation of Jacob Arminius, the Dutch theologian of the 16th/17th century who had sought to ameliorate the harsher features of Calvinism by teaching that human beings had something to say about their salvation. Rejecting predestination, he taught that the deity offers human beings a choice. He proffers His grace to them; they can reach out, take hold of it, and, striving to live a moral life, affect their fate in the future life.
Chauncy was convinced that the more hardened sinners might take longer for the deity to reform. He speculated, therefore, that there may be various stages in the afterlife, through which the serious reprobates among us would pass, experiencing a further cleansing of their souls in each. This was a noble effort on Chauncy’s part to preserve at least a measure of free will for human beings. Although later Unitarians did not necessarily accept his theory of various stages, they did insist that human beings had a say in the future of their souls.
Living the good moral life became the ideal of the Unitarians, with Jesus as an inspiration. Channing was particularly devoted to the idea that Jesus was a great exemplar for human beings. In a two-part sermon, Self-Denial, he took as his text Matthew xvi, 24: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” After a long defense of the use of reason in religion, he addressed particularly the young people in his audience, setting forth recommendations which can justly be labeled ascetic:
I wish to ask the young who hear me, and especially of my own sex, to use the views now offered in judging and forming their characters. Young men, remember that the only test of goodness, virtue, is moral strength, self-denying energy. You have generous and honorable feelings, you scorn mean actions, your heart beats quick at the sight or hearing of courageous, disinterested deeds, and all these are interesting qualities; but remember they are the gifts of nature, the endowments of your susceptible age. They are not virtue. God and the inward monitor ask for more. The question is, Do you strive to confirm into permanent principles the generous sensibilities of the heart? Are you watchful to suppress the impetuous emotions, the resentments, the selfish passionateness which are warring against your honorable feelings? Especially do you subject to your moral and religious convictions the love of pleasure, the appetites, the passions which form the great trials of youthful virtue? Here is the field of conflict to which youth is summoned. Trust not to occasional impulses of benevolence, to constitutional courage, frankness, kindness, if you surrender yourselves basely to the temptations of your age. No man who has made any observation of life but will tell you how often he has seen the promise of youth blasted; intellect, genius, honorable feeling, kind affection, overpowered and almost extinguished through the want of moral strength, through a tame yielding to pleasure and the passions. Place no trust in your good propensities, unless these are fortified, and upheld, and improved by moral energy and self-control. To all of us, in truth, the same lesson comes. If any man will be Christ’s disciple, sincerely good, and worthy to be named among the friends of virtue, if he will have inward peace and the consciousness of progress towards heaven, he must deny himself, he must take the cross, and follow Christ in the renunciation of every gain and pleasure inconsistent with the will of God. [See Channing, Works (1886), 346-347.]
The importance of Christ as a model for humanity is the subject of one of Channing’s more famous sermons, The Imitableness of Christ’s Character.
He is not a mere channel through which certain communications are made from God; not a mere messenger appointed to utter the words which he had heard, and then to disappear, and to sustain no further connection with his message. He came not only to teach with his lips but to be a living manifestation of his religion,-to be, in an important sense, the religion itself. [See Channing, Works (1886), 310-311.]
Christianity, he continued, “is not a mere code of laws, not an abstract system such as theologians frame. It is a living, embodied religion.”
In this, Ballou would agree, but his accent would be somewhat different. Where Channing exalted Jesus as a inspiration in the living of every day life, Ballou would place Jesus’s example in the context of atonement. He came to earth to illustrate the power of God’s love for human beings.
Unitarians became fond of the formulation “salvation by character.” This really was an extension of the Arminianism of Chauncy and other earlier liberals. Human beings, using Christ as a model, had the ability to work toward their own salvation.
Life, in this view, is a period of probation, during which we work at the job of becoming better in our moral lives. It is particularly apt to quote Henry Ware Jr. on this., since, after serving as minister of the Second Church in Boston, he became professor of pulpit eloquence and pastoral care at Harvard (c.1830-1842), and influenced a generation of students:
This is only a state of trial, preparatory to a final state. . . . Principle is to be tested. Character is to be tried. The soul is to be thus educated. By rightly bearing the trials, rightly enduring the temptations, rightly struggling with obstacles, it improves its virtue . . . or failing this, sinks and perishes in the desert. [See The Works of Henry Ware, Jr., D.D.(Boston, 1846-47), 3:410.]
It is one thing for the ministry to preach self denial, it is another for historians to determine how such preaching affected the laity. It is instructive to see how the preaching of Channing on character influenced a given human being. We now have a prime example in the spiritual odyssey of Anna Tilden, who married Ezra Stiles Gannett, Channing’s associate minister at the Federal Street Church. Professor Sarah Ann Wider’s biography of Tilden is a sensitive examination of an individual’s continuing struggle to achieve “salvation by character,” and is, thus, immensely instructive. Wider’s book is an excellent example of what historians refer to as studying history from the bottom up, as opposed to the usual procedure of concentrating on famous persons. [See Sarah Ann Wider, Anna Tilden, Unitarian Culture, and the Problem of Self-Representation (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997). I owe to Professor Wider the previous citation to the Works of Henry Ware Jr.]
Character! It can be worked on; it can be developed; it can be perfected. Self-culture, said Channing, Ware, and others, is the key. Thus, salvation is possible-but not guaranteed.
To the logician Ballou, this was folly, an impossible proposition. There could be no guess work about salvation. If God indeed is all wise (omniscient) and all powerful (omnipotent), there could be no shilly shallying on the subject of the future of human souls. Ballou insisted all would be saved, no ifs, ands, or buts. Consequently, he adopted a position that sent a chill up the backs of the liberals of the day. He was a necessitarian, or, as we would express it in our time, a determinist. Logic dictated that if God is all powerful. He is in control of all things. Therefore, there can be no guesswork regarding salvation.
Ballou was a kind, considerate person, and treated his theological opponents with great courtesy. A reading of his refutations of their positions in A Treatise on Atonement demonstrates this. But, considerate though he may have been, he knew how best to needle them. When the catch phrase “salvation by character” took hold among the Unitarians, Ballou was concerned that such a misguided notion might infect the Universalists. He opposed it on every possible occasion. Although this really is beyond the time period I am dealing with, I would like to point to an article that expressed his position without any possibility of misapprehension. In 1849 he contributed to the columns of his disciple Thomas Whittemore’s newspaper, the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, a piece with the title “Salvation Irrespective of Character.” [See vol. 22 (18 August 1849):37.]
What motivates human beings to live a holy life? Some orthodox preachers delighted in the pulpit in painting sin in a very alluring light, as if they were reveling in it. But, they would then catch themselves and wax indignant at the idea that anyone would enjoy such pleasures of the flesh, which were to be avoided at all cost. They would threaten their congregations. If they did not behave, they would be condemned to suffer fire and brimstone through all of eternity.
This was an approach that liberals of both varieties eschewed. Channing would answer that what made human beings behave well was the result of “disinterested benevolence.” (This was the formulation of the Reverend Samuel Hopkins, whom Channing knew as a youth in Newport.)
Ballou’s answer was to the contrary. He did not use the term, but I would label it the “pleasure principle.” People perform good deeds because it makes them feel good. Good Jeffersonian that he was, he said that human beings pursue happiness. You may remember the homely story he used to illustrate this point in A Treatise on Atonement:
An American is travelling in Europe; he meets in the street a young and beautiful fair, bathed in tears, her breast swollen with grief, and her countenance perfectly sad. His heart, fraught with the keenest sensibility, is moved compassionately to inquire the cause of her grief; he is informed that her father, in a late sickness, became indebted to his physician twenty guineas, for which he was that hour committed to gaol, when he had but partially recovered his health. Our traveller no sooner hears the story than he advances the guineas to discharge the debt, and gives her fifty more as a reward for her generous concern. [See Hosea Ballou, A Treatise on Atonement, with introduction by Ernest Cassara (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1986), 34-35.]
Why did the man perform this act of generosity? Was it “disinterested benevolence”?, as Channing would have asserted. Ballou would say that, on the contrary, the man was very interested! It gave him great pleasure, great happiness, to perform this act of charity! Thus, Ballou insisted, doing good is pleasurable. (We might test this theory, by the way, the next time we drop coins into the cup of a homeless person on the street, or when we write a check for “Project Bread,” or for the latest appeal for the relief of unfortunate human beings across the world!)
The Restorationist Controversy that arose among the Universalists is beyond the scope of this paper, except for one point. It was in the context of that argument that Ballou raised some of the most cogent arguments in defense of his position rejecting the threat of punishment after death, whether of the endless or limited variety. The resolution of the question in Ballou’s mind grew out of a debate in 1817 between him and his dear friend Edward Turner of the Charlestown church. In the course of the discussion, published in the Gospel Visitant, a journal created for the purpose, Turner defended the proposition that there is a limited period of punishment.
Ballou, who had earlier wavered on the subject, in his new examination of the Scriptures came to believe that Universalists had heretofore been incorrect, that there is no punishment whatsoever after death. The consequences of sin are felt in this life. In other words, we get our comeuppance here on earth. He sought to prove this by pointing out that the patriarchs of the Old Testament were rewarded for their good deeds, and punished for their bad, during their lives on earth. It was not postponed until they died. (We must constantly remind ourselves that the Scriptures were claimed by all as their guide!)
Ballou believed that sin equals misery. That is to say that sinners are miserable in their evil actions, and, therefore, are being punished on earth. At death, individuals are immediately transformed by the power of God’s love as they enter eternity, their imperfections wiped away. The idea that the sins of this life, and thus the character of the human being is to continue into the future, as Channing and the Unitarians asserted, he could not accept. Further, that a loving Father, a God of eternal, unchangeable love, is capable of making his children suffer once they had shed mortal flesh, the carnal nature which he believed was responsible for sin in the first place, was an intolerable idea.
Their conception of the nature of sin is important in understanding what the argument was all about. If one followed orthodox theory, human beings, starting with Adam and Eve, had offended against an infinite being. But, how? How was it possible, Ballou asked as early as 1805 in A Treatise on Atonement, for a finite human being to offend against an infinite God? Surely, if men and women, from Adam and Eve on, were capable of infinite sin, they would be equal to God Himself. It must be, then, the sin of human beings is finite, a consequence of their carnal nature.
In A Treatise on Atonement, one of the crucial points that Ballou made was that the nature of atonement had been misunderstood by the orthodox. They insisted that humanity must atone for its offenses against God, that God had to be reconciled to human beings. (Thus, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, on their behalf.) But, Ballou’s revolutionary position was that it was exactly the opposite: It was humanity that had to be reconciled to God. Because of our carnal nature we misunderstand the deity; we misunderstand that, being an infinite God of unchangeable love, He seeks, not to condemn and punish us, but to “happify” us. Thus, his sending of Jesus to earth as an example, to teach us the nature of God’s love.
Ballou stated that if punishment in the afterlife were a biblical teaching, and central to Christian belief, one would have expected God to list it on the tablets that he handed Moses on Mount Sinai. Certainly, the Creator of the universe could not have been so absent minded as not to think it worth mentioning!
In his book, Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution, published in 1834, at the height of the Restorationist Controvery among the Universalists, Ballou set the dramatic scene on Sinai:
The lightnings have flashed! The thunders have rolled! God has spoken! The verdict of heaven is registered! Come, ye doctors, who insist that neither judgment nor punishment is in this world-and who, without hesitation, doom your fellow-sinners to endless wo[e],-come and read the following verdict: “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”-(Exodus xxi. 23-25.) All this is evidently in this world, where life can be taken, where eyes can be destroyed, where teeth can be extracted, where hands and feet can be amputated, where burnings, wounds, and stripes can be inflicted. [See Hosea Ballou, An Examination of the Doctrine of FutureRetribution (Boston, 1834), 60-61.]
He went on to insist that Jesus himself expected retribution to occur in this world, not in the next.
Ballou’s position became known as Ultra-Universalism, or, as his opponents preferred to label it, “Death and Glory”! That is, they claimed he believed that all you have to do to be saved is to die!
It was on this subject that we find Channing intruding into the Universalist argument and taking cognizance of the existence of Ballou, without, however, naming him and his followers. In a sermon titled The Evil of Sin (1832) he stated that it was obvious that sin was not always punished here on earth, and, therefore, retribution occurs in a future life. This position, he said, “finds a response now in every mind not perverted by sophistry.” He condemned “some among us”-obviously referring to Ballou and his followers-who claim “punishment is confined to the present state” and that “in changing worlds we shall change our characters ; that moral evil is to be buried with the body in the grave.” The consequence of such belief, said the Doctor, was that it “tends to diminish the dread of sin.” It is instructive, by the way, that Channing said that the idea was spreading “industriously.”
He was not at all kind in his characterization of Ballou’s Ultra-Universalism. He had never seen, he said, a “more irrational doctrine.” [See William Ellery Channing, Works (1886 edition), 350.]
When Ballou read Channing’s attack, he wrote that he “felt a sinking, a momentary enervation of mind, and a morbid gloom seemed to obscure mental vision.” Of course, I don’t believe this for a moment. I’m sure he was happy to be noticed by the good Doctor, no matter how unflattering the notice. He sharpened his quill, dipped it in ink, and subjected his critic’s argument to a “candid examination.”
. . . If he had been rightly informed, he would have said, It is maintained by some among us that as neither scripture nor reason show to us that sin will continue beyond this state of flesh and blood, so neither do they prove that punishment for sin will so continue; that when we exchange worlds, and this corruptible puts on incorruption, our constitutions will be essentially changed, as is particularly described by St. Paul in his first Epistle to the Corinthians: and that we shall be equal unto the angels, and shall die no more, as Jesus testified to the Sadducees. [See Hosea Ballou, A Candid Examination of Dr. Channing’s Discourse on the Evil of Sin (Boston, 1832), 4-5, 8.]
Ultra-Universalism took hold among a fair number of Universalists, but, in his later years, Ballou saw Restorationism getting a new lease on life. He attributed this to the desire of the younger Universalist ministers to be considered respectable by the Unitarians! With Ballou’s death in 1852, Ultra-Universalism receded.
I believe it fair to say that no matter how persuasive Ballou’s biblical arguments, human psychology was against him. There is something in the nature of human beings that is not satisfied unless they can witness malefactors being punished for their infractions-thus the insistence on capital punishment, whether by a public hanging (once upon a time providing the crowd with a festive occasion!), or the supposedly more humane executions of our day. And, if folks cannot witness such punishment, they are pleased by the prospect that it will take place in the future life.
It is instructive that several of those relatively few Universalist preachers who left the denomination over the Restorationist Controversy either returned when Ballou’s influence waned, or became Unitarians. This tells us that the Unitarians were moderating their belief concerning the afterlife. But, of course, they were engaged in their own controversy over Transcendentalism. I regret that it is beyond the scope of this paper to consider what Professor Andrews Norton of Harvard labeled that “latest form of infidelity”!
It is worth noting that as long as both denominations were in the process of establishing themselves, they tolerated differences of interpretation among themselves. Once they were well-established, however, they could enjoy the luxury of fighting among themselves-the Unitarians over Transcendentalism, the Universalists over Ultra-Universalism.
With the rise of Transcendentalism, many former beliefs were undermined. One notable example was the belief in miracles. In The Divinity School Address, Emerson was to denounce miracle spoken by the church as “monster,” when the true miracles are natural occurrences, such as the “blowing clover and the falling rain.” And that radical of radicals, Theodore Parker, in The Transient and Permanent in Christianity, asserted that Jesus’s teachings were true, not because he taught them, but because they were true in the nature of things. [Both addresses may be read most conveniently in Conrad Wright, ed., Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, Parker (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.]
Both Unitarian and Universalist traditionalists, of course, held out against Transcendentalism, and succeeded, at least in the short term. In that short term, Transcendentalism had more influence in the literary realm than in the religious. But, with time, Transcendentalism eroded the foundations of both denominations, particularly the authority of the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures and the central role of Jesus Christ. Increasingly, ministers followed Emerson’s advice to preach their own experience.
Since I have compared the positions of the two denominations using the leading figures, Channing and Ballou as representative, it would be fitting to conclude with a few words about what happened to them beyond the formative period.
Channing got into trouble with his congregation on Federal Street when he took a very public position in opposing slavery. Things became so sour that the “Cotton Whigs” in the congregation actually cut him in the street. In the last few years of his life, although he maintained the title of pastor, he surrendered the pulpit and his salary. His always tender health led him to travel, which was the panacea in that day. In Bennington, Vermont, he came down with typhoid fever. His physician brother Walter was at his side when he died, at age sixty-two, in 1842.
That was the year the leaders of the congregation at the Second Universalist Society thought that Ballou, now seventy-one years old, should have help. When, after several candidates proved unsatisfactory, the reform-minded Edwin H. Chapin was called in 1845, Ballou supported his efforts, as well as the Universalist General Reform Association, when it was organized in 1849, but he was not as outspoken as Channing on society’s ills. He did, however, oppose capital punishment. Until his death at age eighty-two in 1852, he remained true to his belief that only when human beings are convinced that the deity is a God of unchangeable love, who wishes them well here and in eternity, will life on earth be transformed.